OCEAN CITY — The next major step in the future development of a vast offshore wind farm got underway this week with the launch of a research vessel carrying teams of scientists that will spend the next month or so mapping and surveying the ocean floor in the designated area for the project.

On Monday, the Maryland Energy Administration (MEA) was on hand at the commercial harbor in West Ocean City for the launch of the “Scarlett Isabella,” a 136-foot research vessel that will spend the next six weeks in an area about 10 to 30 miles off the coast of Ocean City designated as the Maryland Wind Energy Area (WEA). The vessel will host teams of scientists charged with mapping and surveying the ocean floor in Maryland’s designated WEA that could eventually be home to as many as 40 turbines off the coast of the resort.

The thorough geophysical survey of the ocean floor in the designated WEA is being conducted by CB&I/Coastal Planning and Engineering Inc., a private firm contracted by the state to conduct the study. The project comes with a $3.5 million price tag, which is being funded out of the state’s Offshore Wind Development fund. The $30 million fund was created out of the merger between Exelon and Constellation to provide research and development money for Maryland’s offshore wind energy project.

The 22-plus member crew on the “Scarlett Isabella” will use the best available technology, including side-scan sonar, multi-beam bathymetry, magnetometry and seismic sub-surface imaging, to develop a high-resolution geophysical map of the sea floor and sub-floor geology in designated WEA about 10 to 30 miles off the coast of Ocean City. The information collected will be critical to the design of turbine foundations and will be required by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) prior to the approval of any future construction and operation plan.

The data collected will eventually be presented to BOEM for approval in advance of any development of offshore wind energy off Ocean City’s coast. BOEM will review and evaluate any future construction and operation plan for compliance with the National Energy Environmental Policy Act, the Magnuson-Stevens Conservation and Management Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and all other applicable federal laws prior to the development of a future wind farm off the coast.

“They’re going to check out everything,” said Senator Jim Mathias (D-38), who represents Ocean City and the Lower Shore. “They are going to map and survey the ocean floor in the wind energy area and take into account everything from impacts on birds and fish, winds, tides, shipwrecks, unexploded ordnance and anything else that could impede the development of the wind farm in the area in the future.”

While the team is conducting research, also on board will be Dr. Ruben Delgado and his team of experts in LiDAR technology from the Joint Center of Earth Systems Technology (JCET) at UMBC. Under a memorandum of understanding with MEA, the UMBC experts will be working with innovative remote sensing technology that uses laser beams to measure wind speed and direction.

Also on board the “Scarlett Isabella” will be a team of student scientists from the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore (UMES), who will be monitoring potential impacts on marine life. Called Protected Species Observers, the UMES students were trained by CB&I/Coastal Planning and Engineering to ensure the protection of marine mammals during the mapping and surveying operation. Essentially, the protected species observers will ensure the survey vessel does not come into contact with marine mammals as it moves in and around the vast WEA about 10 to 30 miles off the coast of Ocean City.

UMES undergraduate Vivian Taylor, one of two UMES students on board the “Scarlett Isabella” along with Blake Bussard, said the students’ role will essentially be open ocean lifeguards as they watch out for whales, dolphins and sea turtles.

“We want to guard against their natural movement or have them interfere with what we’ll be doing,” said Taylor this week. “I’m really excited to be part of an opportunity like this.”

The future wind farm would connect to a larger main transmission line offshore that would come ashore at some point along the Maryland coast and connect to the transmission system on the mainland for distribution across the grid. While praised by many for its clean energy contributions, the proposal is also expected to create hundreds of temporary and permanent jobs.

Mathias said this week he was successful during the session in adding amendments to the bill that would help ensure the maximum economic benefit for his district from the project that will essentially be in Ocean City’s front yard. In the short term, local crews have been hired to shuttle scientists back and forth to the “Scarlett Isabella” and to transport supplies and other materials to the scientists working offshore. Further down the road, local contractors and workers will be used in the development of the offshore wind farm to the maximum extent possible.

Mathias said taxpayers and rate payers in Maryland will not fund a penny of the research and development of the potential wind farm, nor will any public costs be incurred until the first turbine is spinning.

“Nothing comes from the taxpayers or ratepayers until this thing is built and energy is being put onto the grid,” he said. “We built safeguards into the legislation to ensure that. The Public Service Commission will hold hearings and approve an offshore wind energy project only after it has proven a net positive economic benefit for the citizens of Maryland.”

Typically, a private developer would first obtain a lease for the Maryland WEA and then conduct the appropriate research before gaining approval to start building the wind energy farm off Ocean City’s coast. However, because of delays in gaining approval from the General Assembly for the wind farm, and because no private developers have leased the WEA, the state is essentially funding the geophysical survey through its Offshore Wind Development Fund to the tune of $3.5 million.